Showstoppers: Are You Ready for Immersive Dining?

We eat with our eyes first, the saying goes, and chefs are reaching new heights in boldly creative food presentation. From immersive culinary theater to ‘sonic seasoning’, the restaurants of the future want to take you on a multi-sensory journey. 

Once upon a time, all restaurants had to do to please their guests was to offer delicious food and slick service.

Today, it’s often a different picture. Diners increasingly expect to be wowed by theatrical “live” gastronomic experiences, and chefs are reaching further into the realms of science, music and psychology to impress.

Take Soul Foodie’s sell-out “Dinner in the Dark” supper club event, which in June 2017 invited diners into a pitch-black setting to experience a menu by Smokies chef Sara Mair Doak. The idea was that by removing one sense – sight – the flavors and textures of the food would be heightened.

Even in more traditional restaurant settings, dishes are being served with dramatic flair, including bringing part of the cooking process to the dinner table. For example, the Fire & Ice dessert at The Ritz-Carlton’s Seven is blowtorched right in front of diners, while Bàcaro presents its crudo on a Himalayan pink salt slab, curing the slivers of fresh fish as well as looking far more appealing than the standard white plate.

Fire and Ice dessert, The Ritz-Carlton

“I enjoy having the front of house complete elements of dishes table-side to add surprise elements for the guest,” says Massimo de Francesca, Executive Chef at the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa. “Liquid nitro is always a crowd showstopper, especially when infused with essential oils or natural perfumes for aroma and visual therapy.”

Judging by the runaway success of cookery programs on television, from the BBC’s “Great British Bake Off” to Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table,” viewers’ appetite for kitchen voyeurism knows no bounds.

It follows that restaurant design is adapting too, bringing kitchens out of back rooms to stand pride of place. The Kimpton Seafire has brought this trend to Seven Mile Beach. “Avecita is a unique exhibition-style kitchen concept with an elaborate gastronomic Spanish tasting menu,” explains Massimo. “The heartbeat of Avecita is our wood-fired grill and live cooking stage, where our guests have a direct view of the preparation of each dish. This open expo kitchen is situated in the center of the main restaurant [Ave] and acts as the showcase signature restaurant.”

“The personal interaction of this counter-style seating gives our chefs more opportunity to express themselves in their cooking and takes each guest on a culinary journey. Chefs create and prepare dishes while explaining their origin and inspiration,” he adds.

Elsewhere, restaurant design is moving high-tech to surprise and delight diners. At Ultraviolet in Shanghai, the restaurant transforms via video-screen walls, surround sound speakers, bespoke lighting and scent emitters to match each of the 22 courses (the check comes in at $1,000).

Ultraviolet, Shanghai

“Dining establishments have upped their games in response to social media’s depiction of food as a veritable visual feast,” explains Mandy Saven, Head of Food at innovation research agency Stylus. “How-to videos, much like the ones we see on Buzzfeed’s Tasty, have brought food preparation to mass audiences in a previously unimaginable way – and, as such, we have become very familiar with the mechanics that go into meal assembly.”

A multi-sensory dish at Alinea, Chicago

The onslaught of digital culture can conversely make us crave tactile, real-world dining experiences; experiences that go beyond whatever can be offered on-screen. Mandy says it’s all about actively involving patrons on a deeper level: “Even the small step of pouring liquid over a beautifully crafted dessert to illicit a waft of steam can create memorability and emotional value. In today’s screen-dominated world, anything that is visceral and sensorial will go a long way in capturing the hearts of consumers.”

How environment affects the way people experience food and drink is something of an obsession for Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. The color, texture and weight of dinnerware, background noise, even the shape of our latte art on our morning coffee – all these details affect taste, according to his research.

“There is no such thing as a neutral context for eating,” says Charles, who calls this emerging area of scientific inquiry “gastrophysics” and this year brought out a book of the same name.

Did you know, for instance, that round, white plates tend to enhance sweet flavors in food, whereas black, angular plates bring out more savory flavors? That red plates reduce the amount diners eat, and dining with three or more people results in consuming 75 percent more food on average?

“There is no such thing as a neutral context for eating”

Many people know that scent has a huge effect on taste: Without a sense of smell it is tough to tell an onion from an apple, or red wine from cold coffee. But audio also has a significant impact on our taste perception. “Sound really is the forgotten flavor sense. When we think about food, we think about taste, smell, appearance, and maybe texture, but no one thinks about sound. And yet what we hear when we eat affects us in so many ways,” Charles says.

He has begun collaborating with sound designers and composers to create music that will bring out particular tastes – what he calls “sonic seasoning” – such as enhancing the sweetness of an ice cream, the bitterness of coffee or the creaminess of a Belgian chocolate. “In our latest research at a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, we worked with a chef and sound design company to make music that really does bring out the heat in a spicy mango salad.”

Meanwhile, the blaring sound of being on an airplane – around 80-85 decibels of background noise – interferes with our ability to taste sweetness and increases the intensity of savory umami flavors, such as tomato juice – so there is a scientific reason for craving that in-flight Bloody Mary (tomato juice accounts for 27 percent of drinks bought on airplanes). These findings prompted British Airways to launch special playlists matched to its menus to make food taste better at 35,000 feet.

One of the acclaimed chefs with whom Charles has worked extensively is Heston Blumenthal, informing iconic dishes such as Sound of the Sea at the U.K.’s Fat Duck restaurant. The bergamot-cured sashimi dish comes with edible sand (tapioca, miso oil, panko breadcrumbs and grape nuts) and a conch shell, trailing out a pair of headphones that play audio of waves crashing on a beach and a seagull squawking overhead. The idea is to transport diners to a childhood day at the beach.

Sound of the Sea at The Fat Duck in Bray, U.K.

The possibilities of multi-sensory, audio-enhanced dining also fascinate Grant Achatz of Chicago’s three Michelin-starred Alinea: “How do we season with sound? With light? With elements of emotions? For us, that makes the experience more complex and nuanced.”

Quizzed on what the future holds for immersive dining, Charles points to his current research into illusions and trompe l’oeil. Another key area for future development will be cutlery, he predicts. “While everything else around food has changed in recent decades, cutlery has more or less stayed the same for a century. Is cold, hard, smooth stainless steel or silver really the best way to transfer food from plate to mouth? Surely, we can do better?”

No doubt he will. Watch this space.




By Massimo de Francesca, Executive Chef at the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa

  • Arrange your plate with an overall perspective. Don’t overfill the plate; allow space for the light to play in the food. Forget about symmetry, asymmetrical shapes are welcome.
  • Keep the garnishes simple, a few small touches. Micro herbs and edible flowers are an easy addition.
  • Add some drops of oils that have been infused with fresh herbs and drizzle around the plate.
  • Instead of using plates, try presenting your creations on rustic wooden boards, heirloom platters and colored glass trays, to add more interest to what you’re serving.